NYT Iraq Reporter Quits, Becomes “Roadmonkey”
Last year, when former New York Times reporter and Iraq correspondent Paul von Zielbauer launched the “adventure philanthropy” company Roadmonkey with a challenge to cycle the northwest region of Vietnam before building a playground at an orphanage, the economic downturn was already disrupting the tourism industry. Oddly, however, “voluntourism,” a term that has come to evoke snark among those who would mock financially stable travelers who take trips to perform socially responsible acts, was on the rise.
But for all of the more recent, cringe-worthy attempts at voluntourism — grupsters, sans aid skills, quitting work and raising funds to travel to third-world countries for the self-satisfying experience of Helping People — certain bright lights emerged from this trend, stripping themselves from negative connotations. With a more practical and honest approach to an active, focused volunteer travel experience, Roadmonkey has led the charge of the latter group, and Von Zielbauer even recently left the New York Times to run his company full-time.
Von Zielbauer, who has also blogged about his trips for National Geographic Adventure, keeps his groups small, his projects short-term, and adds activity for those who would take a week from their work lives to experience another culture and complete a worthwhile task. What’s more, he offers the experience of a foreign war correspondent, just in case you’re the type to worry about carbombs. Von Zielbauer recently chatted with me via instant-message about topics ranging from the ethics of a traveling journalist running a travel business and what voluntourism gets wrong to how you can actually help people abroad without causing your friends to snicker behind your back. — A.B.
Adam Baer: “Voluntourism” can be a loaded word. You call Roadmonkey a travel company that offers “adventure philanthropy.” What does that term mean to you?
Paul von Zielbauer: Adventure philanthropy is the shortest and most direct wording that I could think of to explain what makes Roadmonkey different than other outfits. That being said, we’re more than an adventure travel company, and we’re hardly just a volunteer outfitter. We’re really both. Roadmonkey was created to combine physically challenging adventures with small but meaningful volunteer projects that our clients start and finish, with their own hands, to help people in need. We’re probably not going to change the lives of the people we help. That’s not realistic. But we do intend to make each project improve the lives of people in a small but measurable way. One other thing: Roadmonkey means to reclaim “philanthropy” from the parlor talk of the wealthy and make it all about everyday people, like you and me, who can do philanthropy by simply getting out there, getting dirty and putting their backs into projects directly.
AB: Ok, my next two questions were going to concern your feelings about the word voluntourism and today’s Onion headline: “Socialites Without Borders Teach Rwandans How To Mingle.” Do you think that’s funny?
PvZ: It’s hilarious! I forwarded that Onion email to a few friends. In re: voluntourism… There’s a lot of really, really, really earnest people in the volunteer tourism brainspace. I’ve learned a lot from them. And I listen carefully to their advice and thoughts, because Roadmonkey must be a responsible practitioner of adventure philanthropy. However, there’s a lot of “this way is the right way; that way is wrong” in this cohort of volunteer-tourism thinkers. They’re right often. But sometimes they’re not. As a congenital contrarian, I can’t help notice that I’m happy to learn from the experts, but I have no interest in being told what I should or shouldn’t do, think or act on. I think that I, and any Roadmonkey client, is smart enough to do good the right way, even if that requires seeking some advice on what way that is. So I have a skepticism toward the voluntourism expert crowd. But I still listen. It’d be dumb not to. But wait, you asked a different question: I don’t use “voluntourism” in describing Roadmonkey because it’s a bit cliche, and everyone and their dog is using it to promote their add-on giveback program. RM was created organically with that component. So we wanted to call it something from our own brainspace.
AB: So, what’s an example of one of the so-called “right way to do things” that escapes a voluntourism expert?
PvZ: In Tanz[ania], one Roadmonkey mentioned that she understood that painting classrooms and building 25 school desks and installing a clean water system wasn’t going to be a game-changing event for the students there. But she said she’s happy doing this work because if she starts thinking about all the bigger problems, she’d never get anything done.
AB: How does that conflict with mainstream voluntourism?
PvZ: I was talking to someone in the Philanthropy 2.0 crowd — my phrase, not theirs — and I was telling this person that in Tanz, our group heard a lot about the perils and pitfalls of volunteering, and making sure we do it The Right Way and not The Wrong Way. And this one Roadmonkey I mentioned to you simply said to me, during our project, hey, that’s all good to know…but I like just knowing that we’re building desks, painting these classrooms, and helping in a small but hands-on way, and that works for me. And when I told that story to the Philanthropy 2.0 person, that person’s reaction was, hmmm, do you really want clients that look at the lowest-common denominator? And I found that slightly condescending. We can’t all be Jeffrey Sachs, or the experts that hate Jeffrey Sachs. We can be thoughtful, engaged, hardworking, and informed. And that’s what Roadmonkey clients should be and, so far, have been. I hold myself to that same standard. Which is, yes, don’t go to Tanz and pass out candy to kids and give them your old clothing — stupid ways to “donate.” But don’t be afraid, after some careful planning and question-asking, to just do something with your hands that the community is asking for or endorsing.There’s usually nothing wrong with that. That all said… The Onion headline was hilarious. One should able to laugh at oneself… and others.
AB: The question is: How do you learn about what projects need doing, and do you need to sometimes create them specifically to insert a volunteer portion into a trip?
PvZ: All our volunteer projects are done in cooperation with a non-profit organization with local expertise and ties to the community in need. Roadmonkey likes to do projects that: a) we can start and finish while we’re there, b) allow us to work with our hands or brains…something hands-on, and c) let us work alongside community members, so we’re not just working-working-working without ever getting to know the people we’re helping. What we decide to do as a project, though, is a collaboration between us and our non-prof partners. We may suggest, but we defer to them to approve a project type, scale, cost etc. Because they’re the local experts. Not us. And yes, we do create projects that wouldn’t have happened without us, but worthy projects, that are up to the specs I just outlined, e.g., building a playground at the orphanage west of Hanoi…that was our idea. but our partners, www.wwo.org, loved it, and so did the people that run the orphanage.
AB: How did you make these connections? Do you ever get pushback from people in the other countries regarding your intentions, and what do your trips cost on average?
PvZ: Reverse order answer: No average cost, really. Vietnam is $2900. Kilimanjaro/Tanz was $4400. Each was two weeks, all inclusive without airfare. But we understand many people want shorter options, so we’re going to Nicaragua, for 9 days, and that may be $2,000 in 2010. Our Peru trip will take 10 days, and roughly cost $2400 or so. And it’s cheap to fly those places now. We’re very aware of our clients’ needs to keep it closer, shorter and less expensive. We don’t get pushback from local communities. because they’ve been involved in the planning. They know what we’re coming to do, and they know they have a voice in how it gets done, and what gets done. And they’re happy we make the effort to go there and meet them and eat with them and get smashed on their local brew and ask them questions about their lives and work our asses off for them.
AB: You’re a longtime journalist who has won awards and contributed so much to our respective field. How if at all did your journalism inform your starting of this business?
PvZ: Good question. It has quite a bit. In these ways: It has taught me that I have a good ear for detecting intentions in others. Journalism has refined that to a very sensitive level. It helps to decipher even unintended signals from all the new people one must meet, try to meet, be introduced to, asked for things from, etc. Also, you can’t be a good reporter if you’re not naturally curious, willing to go down that side street that you’ve seen before but never turned onto. That, in a word, is Roadmonkey: taking the roads not otherwise taken. Journalism has also taught me to communicate clearly. Or at least I hope so. And to be aware of implied assumptions. But perhaps most of all: journalists, good ones, pay attention to how they’re words are being perceived. They understand that saying or writing something that sounds X to them, may sound X minus 3, or even Y, to someone else. So reporters are careful to guard against unintended messages. and we have to gauge, and quickly adapt to, another person’s ability to either understand us or their interest in opposing us.
AB: And I should trust you on foreign soil given your Iraq war reporting, right? Do you feel you’ve learned more survival skills than the average adventure traveler from that type of work?
PvZ: No, I would never say that. That would be a bit presumptuous. But I do have to promote my experiences. Which is maybe what you’re getting at, and fair enough. I’m not a natural self-promoter.But I have to be, now… But yes, I guess I’ve learned to keep my head cool when you’re on deadline and there’s a car bomb shaking the lamp on your desk. Said another way, I guess I’ve learned how to keep cool when on deadline in Baghdad and New York is calling and Jaish al-Mehdi fighters are shooting rockets over the bureau’s roof into the Green Zone. Not that that happened a lot. But it happened. And getting woken up by 7am thuds in your chest…a car bomb 1/2 mile away. Sucks.
You go downstairs and make your espresso and start making calls. It makes dealing with a mudslide in northwest Vietnam, or a messed up hotel reservation in Dar es Salaam, not so big a deal, by comparison. I try to think of the Special Forces guys I met in Iraq, and what they’re self-possession skills must be like. And I’d like to have those, too. One Special Forces medic told me that it’s all matter of how much Cortisol your body produces.
AB: So is this a profitable business, and should other journalists begin thinking of post-journalism careers or sidelines that run concurrent with the crisis in our field?
PvZ: They already are, bro. At least all the ones I know. One of the best reporters at the NYT, in fact, told me 3 years ago: “We all better start looking for night jobs.” As for if this is a profitable business? Honestly, I have to find out. I hope so. But if not, something else will open up. The number of doors that have opened and that which I wouldn’t have been able to predict has been, already, pretty surprising. So I’ll give it up to the universe, work hard, and hope for the best.
AB: Have you been asked by others with skepticism if running a business like this crosses journalistic lines for you, given the fact that you have sponsors like Oakley and Clif Bar? How does the Times feel about it, if the company has even said anything to you about it.
PvZ: No, I haven’t been asked. I left The New York Times on Sept. 4 to devote all my energy to Roadmonkey. But if I had written about Oakley or Clif Bar, or had any intersection with their industries as a reporter, it would have crossed a line. The NYT was aware of Roadmonkey. I brought it to them last year. The paper’s Rules of the Road explicity allow for us to have profit-making businesses on the side. But they must not create a conflict of interest with our journalism, or cause problems for the paper, ethically, etc., and Roadmonkey does not.
AB: What kind of shape do you need to be in to take one of your trips? Is there a large age and interest group on the trips, or is it mostly people in their 20s and 30s who might read Outside and Men’s Journal? What about medical conditions — is there a way to gauge if someone with a chronic condition but decent amount of strength could take part in one of the trips — maybe not Kili, but something else? I feel like some people might be scared to take a trip like this, but that they would probably be fine.
PvZ: Roadmonkeys tend to be in good shape, have gotten into either road biking or climbing shape for the expedition. They’re not triathlete nerds, not that there’s anything wrong with being that. But they tend to be curious, engaged thinking people, professional careers, 25 to 45. And they enjoy a physical and cultural challenge. and jumping the fence and running into the pasture to see what’s on the other side of the trees. I talk with each prospective client before they sign up, to make sure they’re down with getting dirty, maybe, or sweaty or rained on, and that they’re up for the type of adventure we’re doing. And you can learn a lot about the person just by the way they talk about why they want to go and how comfortable they are doing the adventure at hand. If people are scared to take a trip like the ones we’re offering, then we’re not doing a good enough job allaying those fears. If you’re in good shape, don’t mind doing a little training in the month or two prior to departure, you should be fine. We’re not riding/climbing/surfing/rowing to be competitive. but rather to simply see a place firsthand. Not from behind a car, bus or train window. So maybe RM needs to be better about explaining the inclusivity, and reducing the physical intimidation that some may feel.
AB: Speaking of intimidation, what’s the next proverbial fence you’re planning to jump?
PvZ: Vietnam, November ’09. Cycling into the Central Highlands. Through some of the places that were the most bitterly contested battlefields of the war with the U.S. Including My Lai. And then, working for four days at a school in KonTum province, in cooperation with www.eastmeetswest.org, to build an organic farm and plant trees whose pulp is used to make paper money, to create a revenue stream for the school. Then, in the first quarter of 2010, Peru or Nicaragua, I haven’t figured out which yet. River-rafting in Peru, combined with a clean-water project at a village in the rainforest. And Nicaragua: building a playground for a village in co-op with www.fabretto.org, and doing some volcano climbing and surfing.
One thing I’m discovering as I go along, though, is that nothing is easy, and you have to keep a sense of humor or you’ll burn out fast.
For example, right now I’m in Hanoi scouting out the final details for our November cycling/farm building expedition to the central highlands. I’ve arranged to rent Trek mountain bikes from a vendor here in Hanoi. But — surprise! — it’s the mid-autumn festival in Vietnam now, a kind of Lunar holiday for kids. My bike vendor happens to be a major supplier of Hanoi’s mooncakes, a sweet pastry that are a staple of this holiday.
So, to inspect the mountain bikes three days ago, I arrived at his “shop,” where a dozen flour-covered men in white hats were rolling dough, stacking baking racks and staring at me as I walked up the stairs… to the sixth-floor attic. The attic is maybe five-feet high — I’m six-three — it’s 110 degrees, and there’s mooncake dust swirling around us. I’m sneezing as the guy unrolls the tarp covering the Treks. They look great. A little floury, but great. On the way downstairs, there’s cooking oil greasing the floor, so I slip and grab a rack of freshly baked mooncakes. Which dump all over the ground. The men laugh and yell, and yell and laugh.
Make way, fellas, the clumsy foreigner has arrived. Luckily, mooncake flour is neither expensive nor hard to wash out.
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